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North State officials oppose AT&T’s proposal to drop landline service

Landline phone
Erik Adams
/
NSPR
Landline phone

Officials in at least two North State counties say landlines are too important during wildfires for AT&T to stop offering the service.

The telecommunications company recently asked the California Public Utilities Commission to end its obligation to maintain basic phone service as a “Carrier of Last Resort.”

For years, that’s meant AT&T must provide basic phone service, like landlines, where no other connection is available. The company says if the proposal is approved, landline service won’t be immediately discontinued. AT&T plans to maintain service for its customers until an alternate provider is found.

Some policy advocates worry AT&T’s proposal will make it easier for other telecommunications companies to shirk their “Carrier of Last Resort” responsibilities.

The proposal also argues for cutting off landline service to communities where at least half of households have a cell phone or other alternative. Critics say those calculations will leave too many without any connection at all.

 “If we lose [landlines], and the other platforms that we would use to communicate our message go down, then we've essentially lost the ability to communicate during emergencies or disaster situations.”
- Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea

The proposed changes would affect a large swath of the North State stretching from the Sacramento region to the Oregon border. Local cities listed in the proposal include: Yuba City, Gridley, Biggs, Oroville, Paradise, Chico, Los Molinos, Red Bluff, Anderson and Redding.

In response, the Butte County Board of Supervisors will view and discuss a letter of opposition at an upcoming board meeting Feb. 13. According to the letter, AT&T would be withdrawing service to an estimated 37, 711 Butte County households that rely only on landlines for an outside connection. It goes on to say local alternatives to AT&T aren’t affordable or reliable. And, it argues, recent wildfires have left many communities struggling to rebuild their communications systems.

Meanwhile, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said he plans to publicly oppose AT&T’s proposal to drop landlines.

After experiencing the failure of several emergency alert systems during the Camp Fire, Honea said, he’s become skeptical of a growing reliance on cellular networks.

“If we lose [landlines], and the other platforms that we would use to communicate our message go down, then we've essentially lost the ability to communicate during emergencies or disaster situations,” Honea said.

Honea argued reverse 9-1-1 calls over landlines are a “tried and true” emergency alert tool to be used in conjunction with other platforms, like radio, emails and text messages.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says phasing out older technologies like landlines would give his office fewer ways to reach people during a disaster. Photo taken on Feb. 7, 2024 in Chico, Calif.
Jamie Jiang
/
NSPR
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea says phasing out older technologies like landlines would give his office fewer ways to reach people during a disaster. Photo taken on Feb. 7, 2024 in Chico, Calif.

The Yuba County Office of Emergency Services will also send a letter of opposition to the CPUC arguing that landlines are crucial to emergency alerts, said Rachel Abbott, the county’s public information officer.

She said many in the rural county don’t have cellular service. She added it’s taking a long time to bring more broadband infrastructure to the county.

“[Landlines are] critical for everyday services like education and health care, but specifically as it relates to emergency notification … landline is the most reliable as of right now,” Abbott said.

Abbott added she worries about getting timely emergency alerts to the elderly, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in rural areas less likely to have wireless connections.

Tracy Rhine works as a Senior Policy Advocate at the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC). She said the coalition has received similar letters of opposition from Humboldt, Mendocino and Sierra counties.

Rhine said the RCRC opposes the proposal because residents of rural counties are especially vulnerable to natural disasters, most notably catastrophic wildfires.

“That's one of the things that really weighs heavily on the minds of those in the North State in particular is: What happens when we have the next natural disaster?” Rhine said.

Rhine expects more rural counties to voice their opposition as state regulators consider AT&T’s proposal. She expects many will argue landlines must be maintained as an emergency alert tool.

North State residents can look up their addresses on this map of communities where AT&T is proposing to withdraw as Carrier of Last Resort.

Jamie is NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covers all things fire, but her main focus is wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.